Imagine a scene, if you will. It is after a delectable meal of Italian savouries in Capriccio’s a couple of weeks ago, cosy in the somewhat snug space the first-floor restaurant perched above the Elvet Bridge steps provides. I’m surrounded by mediaevalists, as we’ve been feasting after a lecture by an eminent Durham academic on the ethics of ugliness in Old Norse. It has been a good night. Full of flavoursome Italian antipasti and pizza, but wanting a sweet something to counterpoint the spices and aromas still flowing around my mouth, I turn to the waiter and ask what ice creams they have. The answer comes back, as depressingly predictable as the horrible call of the extraterrestrial Shoggoth in Lovecraft’s Antarctic:
And these (or pretentious variants thereof, such as ‘Madagascan Vanilla and Cornish Cream’ or ‘Handpicked, Finely Factory-Made Berry Of The Straw) are the choices at pretty much every restaurant in Durham, Fat Buddha being a notable exception. They’re also the choices at most restaurants across the UK, and I’ve become inured to them.
Then I went to France in August, specifically the Touraine.
Now I’m a quarter French, and used to visit the country every year, but only Paris. This trip involved the city of love too, but began in Tours and its environs. I knew the ice cream would be excellent, but I wasn’t prepared for the range. On our very first night there we went for dinner in Tours’ lovely, ancient mediaeval town square. The dinner itself was one of the best I’ve had recently, but then we went for ice cream. This is not hyperbole: I nearly had a heart attack. We each had three scoops at the first stall we tried, went for a short wander, returned, and got three more at the next, and repeated, literally, ad nauseam. Over the next couple of days we tried around sixteen flavours, almost none of them ones I’d ever encountered before. They included:
- Apricot and rhubarb
- Blood orange
- Vervain, mint and nettle
- Passion fruit
- Pêche de vigne (a rare form of peach grown in Lyonnais vineyards)
They all tasted sublime, as well; most impressively, the brioche flavour genuinely did taste of brioche, my expectation having been that it’d taste like some odd, failed approximation of the sweetened bread. They were everywhere too, sold by numerous cafés in Tours, whilst the brioche flavour came from the spectacular hilltop royal château of Amboise (not unlike Durham in many ways, but considerably more dramatic and lacking the cathedral). The final two, in fact, were found and consumed in Montmartre back in Paris, proving that it’s not just a Touraine thing. Indeed I do recall that, on a childhood visit to Paris, we found a stall selling more than a hundred varieties of ice cream outside the Jardin du Luxembourg.
This led me to thinking (a dangerous habit, I know). Why are the English so uninventive when it comes to ice cream? Our Food Editor informs me that Mexican ice cream can provide such options as beer, and avocado; the mere mention of the latter makes me feel sick, and as a teetotaller the former would leave me cold, but there are doubtless many people who would find themselves coming over all Pavlovian at the concept. The English are supposed to be good at desserts. Granted, we’re pretty terrible at everything else in my opinion (whoever decided jellied eels were a delicacy had either suffered an accident that deprived him of his taste buds, or else was an early instance of trolling), but desserts we can do. Except, apparently, ice cream.
However, I doubt anyone wants to read another rant about the poverty of English cuisine. There’s a wider point, because apart from anything else chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla are as common as they are because people like them, and they’re safe options. And yet they’re so bland. Even a very, very good strawberry is difficult to get excited about, because it’d be the ice cream equivalent of a birdwatcher getting excited about a particularly good pigeon. Or, to make another analogy, it’s all very well to be called John or Anna, but wouldn’t it be more interesting to be called Silverius, or Nienna?
I’m not saying we should stop eating popular food, by any means – but I am saying we should bust out of the food ghetto and enrich our senses with the near-infinite flavours and combinations of flavours that the world provides us with, and of which we generally utilise such a infinitesimally small sliver of the spectrum. Some of those flavours you’ll note were flowers; a great many people don’t realise that a number of flowers are edible and taste as good as they smell (did you know geraniums go down a mildly spicy treat in salads, as do many others, check this out: http://whatscookingamerica.net/EdibleFlowers/EdibleFlowersMain.htm). Why stop there? Vervain (a flower many of you probably haven’t even heard of), mint and nettle, worked – why not, say, cherry tomato and starfruit? To entirely misquote Fight Club, it’s only after you’ve lost every flavour inhibition that you’re free to taste anything…